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Election Preview: Washoe County School District Board of Trustees

Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez
Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez
ElectionsLocal Government
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The Washoe County School District's logo as seen on an office building

Fifteen candidates, including incumbents Scott Kelley and Angela Taylor, will appear on the ballot as hopefuls for the Washoe County School Board — a panel that will have its hands full with both budget and personnel issues.

Trustees elected to a four-year term will be working with a new superintendent, inevitable and sizable cuts to the $5 million district budget and pandemic-related issues including school closures, distance learning and the challenge of preventing new coronavirus outbreaks. The district is also recovering from former Superintendent Traci Davis’ firing scandal last year.

The district also is moving forward with construction projects, including a new high school in northern Reno, that are funded by an increase in sales tax approved in 2016 by a ballot initiative. The tax increase apportions more than $3.8 million a month for the projects, according to the Reno Gazette Journal

While district officials said the decrease in sales tax caused by the business shutdowns and COVID-19 pandemic have been factored into planning, the district and its board members will move ahead on unstable ground amid a substantially slowed economy. 

The Washoe County School District broke a few records last year with a graduation rate of 86 percent and an attendance rate of 97 percent. It is the second-largest school district in the state, behind Clark County, with 64,158 students and 107 schools. 

According to district data, 57 percent of students are categorized as “minority,” 14 percent as needing an individualized educational program because of a disability, about 15 percent as English learners and 50 percent as eligible for free or reduced lunch because of their household’s income. 

Candidates are competing for seats on the board for districts A, D, E and the at-large District G. The districts include schools spanning the regions of South, West and Northwest Reno and the Western side of the county for District G. 

District A 

Scott Kelley, the incumbent representing District A, is touting his experience as a trustee for eight years in his reelection bid. He won the seat in 2016 with 54 percent of the vote, nearly double the total votes of each of his two opponents. Kelley also served as trustee on the board from 2009 to 2012, with a one-term break before his election to a different seat in 2016.  

Also the public information officer for the Nevada Department of Corrections, Kelley has raised the most funds for his campaign among the candidates for the district and out of the entire trustee candidate pool, with just over $10,000 raised from January to the end of March and $3,800 cash on hand. 

Angela Taylor, current vice president of the Washoe County School District Board of Trustees and trustee for District E, follows close behind him with a little more than $8,000 raised for her campaign and $6,800 remaining.

The four other candidates vying for Kelley’s seat have not reported fundraising higher than $2,500 for the same time period. 

Kelley is relying on his experience as a long-serving board member and his rapport with new Superintendent Kristin McNeil for re-election, saying his “experience and institutional knowledge matters more than ever” during unprecedented times caused the COVID-19 pandemic. 

He said if re-elected, he can “hit the ground running,” unlike other candidates who will need to go through a learning curve. 

Other candidates for the seat are Jeff Church, Lisa Genasci, Jack Heinemann and Terese Huerstel. 

A retired Reno Police Department sergeant and retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, Church is making his second run for a seat on the school board. After narrowly winning the 2018 primary election, Church lost the general election to current board member Jacqueline Calvert by 6,443 votes. 

As a regular at local government meetings, as reported by local news organizations, Church has voiced his displeasure at the local education system, calling himself the “watchdog candidate.” 

Church even sued Washoe County in 2016 over the proposed sales tax increase for public schools, which the school district responded to by threatening to file their own lawsuit against the candidate on grounds of defamation in 2017. 

“The Washoe County School Board is dysfunctional and tied up in inertia, multiple lawsuits, falling ACT scores (17.9), and in need of change,” Church’s campaign website said, referring to the district’s average composite score on the 36-point college entrance exam. “The School Board is the most important elected position in Washoe County!”

Church has loaned himself just over $2,000 for his campaign, with $1,600 cash on hand.

Genasci, chief grants officer for Northern Nevada Catholic Charities, said her priorities as a candidate are access to mental health resources for students, diversity, inclusion, equity, technologically modern classrooms and “fiscally minded decisions.” 

Genasci has been heavily involved in numerous community organizations, including the Reno Arts and Culture Commission, Nevada Wilderness Project and human trafficking awareness non-profit Awaken, among others. 

The candidate’s latest fundraising report shows she has yet to receive any contributions for her campaign. 

"I have been discouraging contributions as I would like people to give to those who need it most, especially during COVID-19," she said.

Jack Heinemann is notably the pool’s youngest candidate at 19 years of age. While beginning his freshman year of college at the University of Nevada, Reno, Heinemann also began his first campaign for the school board. He’s raised $1,700, including a contribution from City of Reno Councilwoman Naomi Duerr. His campaign has a little more than $200 left for spending. 

Terese Huerstel was a music teacher in the school district for 22 years and, now retired, also seeks a seat on the board. The candidate said she is concerned about teacher burnout in her Washoe County candidate profile.

"Teachers want to teach," Huerstel said. "The more the District adds to a teacher's plate, the less energy they have to do their most important job, which is to educate students. Let's address teachers' concerns as they know what best enables them to help their students achieve success."

Candidate tensions

Kelley has noted that two of his opponents are running negative campaigns against him, “saying things that bend the truth or are outright false.” 

He’s referring to Church and Heinemann, who have used Kelley’s tenure on the board to campaign for fresh candidates, like themselves, to face the issues and prevent repeating mistakes. 

Church has a quiz about the school board and district on his campaign website, where a question prompts, “Which candidate is not part of the current problem?” to which the answer is “Any except for incumbent Scott Kelley. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Similarly, Heinemann wrote a column for the Reno Gazette Journal and stated, “Our current representation on the school board is not working,” and claimed that Kelley “rejected and blocked constituent input; voted for not one, but two inflated evergreen superintendent contracts (Heath Morrison and Pedro Martinez) our district couldn’t afford; and gave rave reviews to Traci Davis, which ran contrary to staff climate surveys.” 

Kelley rebutted the first and last points of Heinemann’s allegation, with photo examples of time spent in the community, talking to parents, teachers or students and social media clips of his Facebook engagement and conversations with community members. He also linked to a board meeting in 2017 where he graded Davis 2.2 for her preliminary job performance review and added that he was one of two trustees who voted against the board’s decision to classify her performance as “accomplished.” 

Kelley also voted against the proposed 2018-2020 contract for then-Superintendent Davis, citing the salary and perks “were too much” while “her performance did not warrant it.” He also ultimately voted to terminate Davis’ contract after an internal investigation. 

Regarding the accusations and negative comments from his opponents, Kelley said “I think it’s unfortunate when a candidate goes negative. It’s an indication they could continue to be negative when they begin the position,” adding such candidates may not be “ready for the position.” 

District E 

Incumbent board member Angela Taylor is up against a sole opponent, Matthew Montognese, whose campaign fundraising report shows he’s yet to raise any money.

Montognese’s campaign website says his priorities are community unity, a student focus, future perspective, school safety and character-building for students. 

Meanwhile, Taylor boasts sizable campaign contributions adding up to $8,191 for the first quarter with a remaining $6,820 in her campaign account. Additionally, Taylor has received endorsements by organizations including the powerful Culinary Workers’ Union and the Nevada American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). 

Taylor’s campaign has notably also received contributions from Sandy Raffeali, dealer principal at Bill Pearce Motors, and Reno City Councilman Devon Reese. 

District D

Kurt Thigpen, CEO of marketing and design agency Ace Studios, has a fundraising and endorsement advantage in District D, which includes schools in West Reno including Caughlin Ranch Elementary School, Mount Rose Elementary School and Reno High School. 

Thigpen raised a little more than $4,000 for his campaign between January and the end of March and had $600 available for spending at the end of the first quarter. Reese was a donor for his campaign, too. 

The other two candidates, Stan Berk and Michael Marquez, have yet to raise money in the same time period for their campaigns. 

Thigpen has landed notable endorsements from the Washoe Education Association, Washoe Education Support Professionals (W.E.S.P.) and school board President Malena Raymond, among others. 

“Our students deserve a quality education,” Thigpen’s website states. “That begins with feeling safe, included and accepted so that they can be empowered to be successful in their studies without worrying about things like getting to school safely, being bullied, or paying for school lunch.”

District G

Craig Wesner leads the pack in fundraising for at-large District G, which spans Washoe County’s western region, including part of North Lake Tahoe.

Wesner is the CEO of Lumos and Associates, a consulting firm for civil engineering design and has raised more than $3,000 in the most recent reporting period with $5,000 cash on hand. The candidate has also been endorsed by Simon Holland, the Washoe Education Association, Washoe Education Support Professionals and the Northern Nevada Central Labor Council, among others. 

The candidate’s priorities as listed on his campaign website include “leadership at the board level, improving the WCSD culture, improving educational opportunities, funding at the national median level.” 

Candidate Jeff Baclet is a Reno High School alumnus and has raised $500 for his campaign, but has no funds remaining for spending. This is his first run for office and his website says he wants to improve the “failing education system.” 

John Eppolito is a former teacher from the North Lake Tahoe area and is currently a real estate broker salesman. Eppolito is regularly present at legislative hearings and proposed an early version of SB403, a bill that protects student data. 

He has raised $1,663 for his campaign with just under $1,400 remaining for spending, and has received a notable endorsement from Republican Assemblyman Jim Wheeler. 

Diane Nicolet has a background in early childhood education, teaching and educational leadership and has loaned herself $1,000 for her campaign with just under $700 remaining.  

Paul White, director and co-founder the Stronghold Institute, a nonprofit foundation that says on its website that it offers “Bible-based learning and healing” has loaned himself $300 with less than $20 remaining. 

Updated at 8:32 PM, 5/27/20 to correct the school board president's name and the name of Kurt Thigpen's business. Updated at 6:37 p.m., 5/29/20 to clarify why Genasci is not seeking contributions. Updated at 9:55 a.m. 6/9/20 to correct the details of Church's lawsuit against Washoe County and provide information on District A candidate Terese Huerstel.

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